Cycling Track

What’s the deal?

Track cycling used to be a super-popular spectator sport, which may have been one of the reasons it was in the very first modern Olympic Games. With the exception of the Stockholm Games in 1912, it’s been featured in every edition of the Games.

The sport is what you might think: Cyclists race bikes around a wooden track to see who’s fastest. But it’s so much more than that! The track is banked (the type of venue for this sport is known as a velodrome), and the bikes have to be as light as possible as to not slow down the riders. That means they’re stripped of all whistles and bells–and not just the bike bell. We’re talking no extra gears, no brakes, that kind of thing. Wheels can also be covered (depending on the event, either one or both will be covered to prevent air from breezing through the spokes and slowing down the bike).

Cyclists themselves also try to be as aerodynamic as possible, wearing thin, stretchy biking shorts and shirts and helmets that (also depending on the event) can taper down to a long point in the back and have a face shield.

To get that one gear going as fast as possible, cyclists also have to have massive thigh strength. This, and the physics of the track can have them racing at crazy fast speeds for Olympic glory.

Who’s competing?

Men and women compete as individuals and teams in a number of events:

  • Keirin – Individual
    • “Keirin” means “fight” in Japanese, but the beginning of this race doesn’t look much like a fight. Group of cyclists pedal slowly behind a motorized pace bike for a few laps. The pace slowly picks up, and then the pace bike leaves the track when there’s just 2.5 laps left. That’s the cue for the riders to lay on the pedal and race as fast as they can for the finish line.
  • Omnium – Individual
    • This is a two-day affair consisting of six different types of races encompassing everything track cyclists can do–to put it succinctly, it’s cycling’s version of a decathlon. Cyclists accumulate points in each event, and the highest total points wins the medal. The events are (and men and women often race different distances):
      • One-lap time trial – Individual rider vs. clock
      • Points race – This is a long-distance group race where the objective is to collect as many points as possible. If you know about intervals, you’ll understand how this race works. Groups of riders ride against each other for a long distance, and throughout the ride there are different sprinting intervals. If you’re one of the first four to finish the interval portion, you rack up points. You also get points for lapping others. The rider with the most points at the end of the race wins.
      • Elimination Race – Different criteria cause you to be eliminated from the race at hand. That could be a good thing, depending on how the elimination is structured. If it’s a “win this part and you’re out,” you’re saving your legs for the next event.
      • Individual Pursuit – In a pursuit, cyclists start on opposite sides of the track and chase each other. First one across their own finish line wins.
      • Scratch Race – Group of cyclists race against each other. First one across the line wins.
      • Time Trial – A timed race that’s likely longer than the one-lap event.
  • Sprint – Individual
    • Cyclists battle one-on-one to win a three-lap race.
  • Sprint – Team
    • Teams start with as many riders as there are laps in the race, and after each lap, the team loses a rider until there’s just one left sprinting for the finish.
  • Pursuit – Team
    • In the Team Pursuit, two teams race against each other, starting on opposite sides of the track and chasing each other. Each team races in a row, with teammates taking turns leading the way. The team who crosses their own finish line first OR catches the opposing team wins

Why should I watch?

This sport is INSANE. It’s super-fast for one thing (except if the race has a standing start, which basically means, “Yo, coach, hold my bike still for the start”). For another, riders race super-close to each other, and no brakes means that if they brush against each other, they’re likely crashing and (floor-) burning in spectacular fashion–and by “spectacular fashion” we mean that the floor can rip their tiny spandex uniforms to shreds. You can’t not turn away–if you do, you’ll miss something fantastic.

Potential drinking game:

When there’s a crash, drink.

The perfect snack:



The International Cycling Union is the global governing body of the sport. Check out your country’s cycling federation for more information on getting involved. Britain and the US both have decent sites in terms of getting started in the sport.

Officials (in cycling they’re also called “commissaires”) keep races safe and fair, and becoming an official is a great way to get involved in the sport. Learn more about officiating here and here.

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